Friday, August 30, 2013

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES: A FILM COMMENTARY

By Ronald Fox

Best Years of Our Lives

Occasionally Phronesis will offer film commentaries. Though we are not film critics, sometimes a film with a strong political message may inspire a commentary. Such is the case with the 1947 film, The Best Years of Our Lives. I’ve seen this film many times before, but only after watching it again recently did I come to fully appreciate what a great and enduring film it is. This isn’t just my opinion, as the film won seven Academy Awards, including best picture, and earned as astonishing, for the time, $11 million.

Best Years tells the story of three soldiers returning to the same town from World War II: Captain Fred Derry (played by Dana Andrews), an Army Air Force bombardier, Army sergeant Al Stephenson (played by Fredric March), and Homer Parish (played by Harold Russell), who was in the navy. Each is gripped with fear and uncertainties about returning to “normalcy.” Fred returns to a beautiful wife (Virginia Mayo) who has been working in clubs while he was away, Al to a loving wife and family and position in a bank, and Homer to his family and fiancé. Each, however, has been scarred by the war. Fred has recurring nightmares about his bombing missions. Al has taken to drinking, and Homer has lost his hands in an explosion on ship and now has two hooks for hands. Their chance meeting after the war turns into a close friendship and a sharing of their respective post-war difficulties.
 
The film centers on the struggles of Fred, Al and Homer trying to readjust to civilian life. Fred has difficulty finding work because his skills, “killing Japs,” are not relevant to a new workplace environment that now places a premium on education, training, specialized skills, and experience. He can’t please his party-animal wife, whom he finds has developed a taste for the good life, and, other men.

Al returns to his family and job at the bank, but he is uneasy re-connecting emotionally with his faithful wife (Myrna Loy), nor his son, who doesn’t seem to appreciate the war relics he brought home and pesters him with questions about Hiroshima and atomic energy, which his high school teacher had told him needs to be controlled, “or else.” At the bank, Al discovers it has adopted a policy of requiring collateral before granting loans, something most of his fellow returning soldiers lack. He is pressured to deny loans to veterans whom he believes are of strong character and can be trusted to repay.

Homer’s fiancé and parents are uneasy with his disfigurement, though they try hard not to show it. All three are returning to an America they find cold, unwelcoming, and less optimistic about the future. They all feel like misfits, unneeded relics of the past, a point that was powerfully illustrated in a scene near the end of the movie when Fred is strolling through a junkyard of dismantled B-17s, the planes he flew during the war. Like Fred, they had served their purpose, but were now unfit for the new era.

The film does offer some positive images at the end: Homer finally comes to accept his condition and marries his fiancé; Al accepts that his daughter has taken up with Fred, who is divorcing his floozy wife; and, Fred finds new love and a job at the airplane dismantling yard. Like Fred, the old planes are not worthless; they will be scrapped to free up materials for prefabricated housing. Fred may yet find a purpose.

Yet the overall message of the film is troubling. It pointed to an emerging, post-war America that would not be warm-hearted and virtuous, like the America being portrayed in most other early post-war films, most notably Frank Capra’s, It’s a Wonderful Life. Rather, it will be dog-eat-dog, and, worse yet, dangerous and possibly apocalyptic, as The Best Years of Our Lives  quietly conveyed in two, revealing scenes. In one, Homer’s Uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael), who plays piano at the group’s favorite local watering hole, tries to calm Homer’s immediate family worries by telling him that everything will be OK, unless there’s another war, “then none of us will have to worry because we’ll all be blown to bits on the first day, So Cheer up, huh?”

The other takes place in a soda fountain where Fred used to work. A customer tells the hyper-sensitive, Homer that he lost his hands “for nothing” because radicals in Washington had forced us to fight the wrong enemy, alluding to the Commies, which were about to emerge as the “real” enemy. These scenes anticipate fears of the Communist menace and Armageddon coming, worries that would endure in American popular culture for decades.

Not only was The Best Years of Our Lives wonderfully, filmed, acted and directed (William Wyler), it was an important film in the context of its times. From the 1930s through World War II, Hollywood avoided overtly political, “message” films. This was largely because it was believed they weren’t entertaining and rarely made money. Best Years proved these assumptions wrong. Its release in 1947 contrasted sharply with the slew of propagandistic, Hollywood war films made during and shortly after the war that invariably depicted heroic bravery, comradery among soldiers, the toughness but fairness of officers, and the righteousness of America’s cause. Many showed a grateful citizenry greeting returning soldiers with hugs, kisses, and ticker-tape parades. The horror of war was sometimes depicted, but in the end, the viewer was usually left with good feelings about our brave men fighting to protect our freedom.
After WWII, the Office of War Information (OWI), which had overseen production and distribution of most of these films, cooperated with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to form the Motion Picture Export Association (MPEE). The goal of this collaboration was to export films abroad that would paint the U.S. in a favorable light in order to help establish an ideological and industrial film presence abroad. By the end of 1947, political forces in Washington and Hollywood had mobilized to get the studios out of the business of message films. The producers of The Best Years of Our Lives, along with the film , Crossfire, a 1947, anti-racist, anti-anti-Semitic film that was nominated for five academy awards, resisted subtle forms of economic and political, pro-America censorship pressures and went ahead and made films critical of America. They would stand alone, however, as the dark years of Hollywood blacklisting was about to unfold. It would be years before anyone dared to produce a critical message film.




1 comment:

  1. Ron, Thanks for the review. One of my favorite pictures and still so relevant. Another picture that was different and a little controversial at the time was Gentlemans' Agreement with Gregory Peck. I was ten years old and it made a big impression-- still a good movie if a little hectoring. I grew up knowing all about restrictive covenants and exclusionary rules at clubs and quotas and hiring policies at the major corporations. I just looked G.A up on Wikipedia to see if I remembered correctly and it has a little back story. Daryl Zanuck decided to make it because he'd been denied membership at a country club because he was Jewish --which he was not. Came out same year as Crossfire and won academy awards. Check out the Wikipedia listing.

    Also Kudos to you. I think all your posts are examples of great prose. Lucid, informed, interesting - extremely well organized. Very impressed. Lou
    On Jan 18, 2014, at 1:34 AM, Phronesis / {fro-nay-sis} wrote:

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